Tweens, teens and screens: 5 important lessons from a school tech coach

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Students learning to get the most out of their iPads. (Photo: Verizon Innovative Learning)

“We wanted to provide our kids more access to technology,” explains middle school tech coach Cristina Bustamante, “especially being in Silicon Valley.”

Sounds like a no-brainer, but some schools, whether in the tech capital of the country or not, face an uphill financial battle when it comes to not only equipping their students with up-to-date technological tools, but teaching them how to use the tools creatively and responsibly.

That’s where Verizon Innovative Learning comes in, with tech coaches like Bustamante — getting spotlighted now in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week — guiding the way. The program provides free technology and internet access to schools through an application process, and a “next-gen, technology-infused curriculum that changes the way teachers teach and students learn.”

“So oftentimes our students don't have access to the internet once they leave school campus,” says Bustamante, who was a classroom teacher for 13 years and is now working with teachers and students at Ocala STEAM Academy, in San Jose, Calif., as part of the grant from Verizon (which is the parent company of Yahoo Lifestyle).

“This program allows them to have more access so that the learning can continue when they get home,” she says. “It doesn't end once the school day ends.”

An early challenge of coming into a school without much tech literacy, she says, is making sure that everyone involved — teachers and students and parents alike — understand the wide range of options. “I could model the lesson with a teacher. I could help lesson plan,” she explains, noting the importance of coaching students and teachers on how to incorporate technology in a creative, meaningful way.

But as any parent of a tech-savvy kid knows, that’s only half the battle. The second is making sure they use the technology responsibly and safely, and that they don’t freeze and broadcast moments in time that could come back and bite them later.

Here are 5 lessons from Bustamante, which can help parents of tweens and teens, either in or out of any classroom:

Know that, technologically speaking, your kid will likely know more than you do. And that’s OK.

A lot the most valuable learning can come from just letting the kids play and giving them that space to be able to do that, says Bustamante — “and being okay with the fact that they're going to probably know more than you. And that's hard for adults sometimes, because that's not an easy feeling to own.” That means that, sometimes, the learning curve will be more on the adult end then on the student end, she notes.

A student learning about the joys of technology with Verizon. (Photo: Verizon Innovative Learning)

Discuss treating people well on social media — and don’t necessarily punish when they mess up.

“We do digital citizenship every year with the kids. It's a constant conversation,” Bustamante says. Sometimes, kids post a “bad picture” or have made a negative comment to someone, she says, but they make a conscious effort to not take the device away, noting, “It’s a discussion, it's a lesson. It's getting the kids involved and really understanding the impact of their actions.”

She adds, “You know, it's really easy to just take things away and shut things down. I remember I got frustrated at a tech meeting recently, cause they're like, ‘We took away the ability for the kids to choose their own Chrome theme.’ And I'm like, ‘but why? If they're choosing appropriate Chrome themes, then maybe discuss why that's not an okay thing to do when you're at school, and then show them how to pick appropriate ones. Don't just shut off the ability to do that.’” When a student is writing notes in class, she asks, “Do you take a pencil and paper away from him? No. So why is that any different with a digital device?”

Stress the future impact of their current online actions.

“So, it used to be we’d talk about their ‘digital footprint,’ and now it's a ‘digital tattoo,’ because footprints go away,” she says. She attempts to teach kids that “what you think is cute now is not when you try to get a job or get into college, you know? ‘Think about it: What are they going to see?’ Bustamante’s son, for example, starts high school next year. “I tell him, ‘if you make any of the sports teams, you better not be pictured with a red cup in your hand, ever. Even if you're drinking water out of it. People are going to see a red cup and make assumptions about what's in it.’ So, you know, it's just little things that we didn't have to think about.”

Focus on the simple joys that technology can bring kids.

“It’s super simple, but just having a camera on a device makes such a big difference” for her students, she says. “Being able to create a video or use photos that you've done.” Turning that into a mind-blowing experience doesn’t take all that much, she says, explaining a project she worked on with kids based on empathy and engineering: “Eighth graders interviewed a few different clients and they were supposed to engineer something to help make that person's life better,” she says. “For a client with anxiety, one of the groups coded an app which included journaling and soothing music and positive self-messages.”

Help your child succeed IRL, and watch the rest fall into place.

“We want them to be good humans. We want them to treat other people with respect. We want them to be able to go out there and solve problems and listen to what other people have to say. We want them to see their self-worth,” Bustamante says. “I think if we can send them onto high school as good people, the rest of it will fall in place for them. And so obviously learning is important, but more important than that, I think, is: What kind of people are they leaving as?”

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• Former teacher shares powerful resignation letter: ‘I won’t be in an abusive relationship with public education’

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